Besieged in a storm of controversy, much of it over form (should he speak at all without Presidential invite?), Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu’s substance was clear, making Israel’s case for distrust of Iran’s intentions and greater stringency in any agreement. Israel’s concerns about a nuclear program by a country which has repeatedly threatened to burn it to the ground are understandable. In the Cuban Missile Crisis of October, 1962, President Kennedy went to the brink of war to remove Soviet missiles. Clearly, Americans do not like nuclear threats either. The cold shoulder given Netanyahu by the Administration and many in Congress can only be counterproductive, leaving Israel feeling more isolated and vulnerable. Perhaps more important than what Bibi say, however, is what he did not say.
Bibi did not say is that the cold shoulder treatment was not just an affront to him, but also sent the wrong message both to Iran and to our Middle East allies. Indeed, the March 4 Arab newspaper, the Peninsula, contained an article entitled “Obama Snubs Netanyahu Speech.” While this may have brought smiles to the Iranians, it did little for others in the region. If the close, long-standing U.S.-Israel connection suddenly seemed fragile, others wondered how reliable a partner the U.S. really is. Subsequent belittlement of Bibi’s speech by the President sent further negative messages.
Nor was Bibi solely speaking for Israel. Indeed, prior to the speech a Saudi columnist deemed Netanyahu’s visit as positive. None of the twenty-two Arab League states wish to see further Iranian nuclear advance, with Arab-Persian tensions played out on the ground almost every day. Nor does Turkey want a nuclear Iran. Alas, given Middle East rivalries, none of the Arab states can be seen as associated with Israel, but they were nonetheless rooting for Netanyahu, hence he was actually speaking for every state in the Middle East but one—Iran!
Importantly, Bibi did remind us that nuclear proliferation will ultimately result. Some believe that Saudi Arabia, which has 18 nuclear facilities on order, already has a nuclear weapon, but it is sitting in Pakistan. Saudi Arabia will not stand still, and it has the money to buy, hire, and deploy. This is a vicious cycle. Even if Iran is truly sincere, at least at the moment, that it has no interest in nuclear weapons, its Shahab missiles can strike anywhere in the Middle East and many places beyond. And strangely, it is working on intercontinental ballistic missiles. So the Saudis may move first, which would force the Iranians to cross the threshold. And what can we do then—more sanctions, which might then have to include Saudi Arabia and perhaps Israel as well? And it will only be a matter of time until Egypt and Turkey feel they must have them too. If such weapons seem unreachable, many states may defensively choose chemical/biological devices. Does the world really need more of these ghastly weapons?
Nor is this the end of the story. Bibi did not say that given the Middle East’s rampant extremism, sectarian and religious antagonisms, coupled with leaky security establishments, it is only a matter of time until the Middle East’s seeming unending supply of Bin Laden’s will get their hands on state-owned weapons. So the Middle East is not the geographic limit. The Pentagon and World Trade Center attacks were the best Bin Laden could do. Just think what damage terrorists with nukes or sophisticated chemical/biological devices would do.
Allowing Iran to get close to the nuclear weapon threshold is a critical mistake because we will only find out after they have made the leap, and then what do we do? Netanyahu has a good nose for threats—he lost his brother in the Entebbe raid. And in a briefing to U.S. military officers in Israel in May, 1990, he used a pencil to delineate hot spots on the wall map. “The greatest threat today,” he stressed, “is Iraq,” and he flattened his pencil against the map, with Jerusalem on one end and Baghdad on the other. “You see,” he said, “they are only a pencil away.” Eight months later Iraqi scuds were falling on Israel, but at our request it launched no reprisals.
Netanyahu’s concerns—an expiration date, non-inclusion of terrorist activities, and a smaller nuclear infrastructure—are substantive. And what he did not say is equally, if not more, important. It is even possible that a bad deal may force Israel into unilateral action. Is that what the U.S. wants? In the 1960s, a British commentator stated that “America’s foreign policy is simple. They are friendly to the neutrals, neutral to the enemy and hostile to their friends.” It seems that very little has changed.
Donald L. Losman, PhD, is a lecturer in International Affairs at the Elliott School, George Washington University.